Sketchpad in hand, Roland strolled into Colombo’s 24-hour diner on Main Street in downtown Ravensgate. He didn’t care if it was nearly two-thirty in the morning; he lived in that town for years and he’d walk the streets however late he damn well pleased.
The arthritis in his hip impeded his gait as he made his way to his usual booth by the front window with a view of Main and all the shops aligning it. He ordered his usual – coffee, cream and three sugars.
The diner was redolent with the aroma of eggs and coffee. And even though the Michigan state law that prohibited smoking in public places went into effect years ago, the faint scent of nicotine still lingered. Leon, the cook, had probably lit one up in the back before Roland walked in.
Mona – the heavyset server dressed in customary black pants, black top and a beaten-up pair of non-slip sneakers, served Roland’s cup of piping hot coffee. “Anything else, Roland?” Mona asked as she popped a stick of gum in her mouth.
The question was rhetorical, they both knew it, chuckling slightly at their private joke. He’d been going there for decades, and she’d been working there just as long. When he came at this time of night to work on his art, he only ordered coffee and occasionally got a Danish to go when he left at sunup.
When Mona ambled away Roland took a sip then saw his image reflected in the window next to him and thought about time and its passage. He no longer had the jet-black hair and smooth skin. He was now in his seventies with wisps of white hair neatly combed to the side. Deep lines and wrinkles adorned his face like a spider’s web.
Roland opened his sketchpad, removed a pencil from his shirt pocket and looked over his drawing, a sketch of a striking woman in her mid to late twenties. He was pleased with himself that he got Vivian’s likeness down from memory, even after all these years.
The memories began to flow. Roland remembered where he met Vivian back in Detroit where they were both from. Years ago in his youth, on a blazing summer afternoon, Roland caught a Tiger’s game. That’s where he first laid eyes on her beautiful face, at the old Tiger Stadium on Michigan Avenue and Rosa Parks Boulevard before it was torn down. Vivian was there with her family, and she happened to be in front of him in line at the hotdog stand. Roland was smitten at the site of her and struck up a conversation. After the game they kept in touch and began seeing each other steadily. The two couldn’t be separated. A few months later Vivian and her family moved to Ravensgate, the small town north of Detroit. Roland couldn’t be without his beloved so he packed up and moved to Ravensgate to find work so he could be close to her.
Roland continued to sketch, working on the finishing touches of his piece. After several minutes of drawing, he suddenly sat upright as if he’d been jolted. It was like an icy hand reached out from a grave closed so long ago, touching him, sending a chill throughout the very core of his soul.
He looked around the diner. Colombo’s was where Roland and his pals met on occasion for coffee to chat about politics and the good old days, among other things. The diner was unusually empty this time of night. Typically, there were two or three stragglers – night owls, insomniacs, cops, or truck drivers passing through. Not tonight, however; save for Mona and Leon, the place was vacant.
At that time in the morning, the streets of Ravensgate were just as barren. Few headlights in motion, even fewer pedestrians, only the endless dark of night which now seemed even darker with the broken streetlight out front. A lonely gloom filled the atmosphere, which gave Roland an underlying feeling of restlessness.
A half-hour passed and the bells connected to the double doors sounded overly loud in the bludgeoning silence, startling Roland, who looked up from his sketchpad. Jack, another senior citizen although younger than Roland by eight years, entered the diner. He waved to Jack, who sauntered over to Roland’s booth by the window. Jack exchanged pleasantries with Mona on the way and ordered coffee – cream, no sugar.
Roland gave Jack a strange glare as he sat down. An odd and somewhat nervous look creased Roland’s face, as he studied Jack, adding more lines to the many already present. There was something strange about Jack that caused Roland to feel disturbed and anxious, but he said nothing.
A stout man with a gray pompadour and sideburns, Jack had some trouble squeezing into the booth in the seat opposite Roland. His beer and burger belly pressed against the edge of the table, Jack scooted into place with a grunt, the effort reflected in his expression.
“Whaddya say, Roland? You look a little pale tonight,” Jack greeted as he struggled to get comfortable. Mona came by and set Jack’s coffee on the table. “Thanks, dear,” he said in a gravelly tone from years of smoking.
“Anything else, Jack?”
“Yeah, how about a patty-melt and chili cheese fries?”
“Sure thing, honey. Be right back.” Mona responded and walked away.
Jack turned back to Roland. “You okay, Roland? You’re looking at me like you’ve never seen me before. What gives?”
“Um…just a little gloomy in here tonight, that’s all.” Roland replied, voice taut with unease. He stopped drawing and quickly closed his sketchpad, not wanting Jack to see what he was working on.
“Does seem kind of dismal in here tonight, don’t it?” Jack said as he scanned the diner. Well, whatever it is, don’t let it get you down.”
At that moment, the bells on the front door of the diner jingled again and the muscles in Roland’s neck knotted up when he saw who entered. Sal Wallace, a local private detective, dressed in a traditional grey trench coat with a matching fedora hanging crookedly on his head. Underneath the coat, he wore a rumpled cheap suit and tie, the latter now loosened, and the top few buttons of his white dress shirt undone. Sal was still in pretty good shape for someone in his sixties. He had to be for someone tracking down and taking video of people having carnal knowledge of other people who weren’t their spouse.
Minding his own business, Sal walked up to the counter, sat on a stool, his trench coat hanging down and asked for a black coffee. Roland and Jack glared at him the entire time. Especially Roland.
“Try not to think about him. It was forty years ago. A whole lifetime has gone by,” Jack whispered.
“I let it go a long, long time ago, Jack. But all said and done, I can never forget it,” Roland replied, matching Jack’s whisper, eyes narrowing at Sal.
Mona handed Sal his black coffee in a white Styrofoam cup to go. The private eye paid, got up, then glanced over Roland’s way. There was a flinch of recognition on his otherwise stoic granite face. Without breaking stride, he exited the diner.
“Every time I see him around town, I’m always reminded. I always think of him and Vivian. How they had the affair years ago,” Roland said, raising his voice now that Sal was gone. He gazed deep into the dark recesses of his coffee.
“You’re a strong man, Roland. I probably wouldn’t have reacted the way you did. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I’d found my wife in bed with another man. I would’ve done something harsh. I know it,” Jack admitted. “I still want to kill Andy, my asshole boss, for firing me last week. He knows I don’t have much of a savings and can’t retire. I need to work. I gave thirty years of my life to that damn company. What do I get for all my years of service? The middle finger!”
Roland had heard it before almost every day for the past five days. He heard it so many times, the story of Andy firing Jack, that he could tell it himself. But really it was Jack’s fault from showing up to work late too many times due to hangovers. Andy gave him plenty of chances but could only do it for so long. Roland wanted to stop Jack from ranting about it again; he was sick of the whole thing. He was about to say something, anything to change the subject, but when he looked up at Jack, he flinched visibly. Whatever caused Roland to feel unsettled about Jack’s presence just got worse.
Jack stopped before he could start. His tone inflected with righteous indignation to one of concern. “You okay, buddy? You don’t look so good.” He reached over to Roland, who was rubbing his left tear duct with a pinky finger.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just got something in my eye,” Roland sighed. He sipped his coffee. “Ya’ know, Jack, I gotta tell you something. Something I ain’t never told no one else. Something I’ve kept secret for forty years now,” Roland declared, his demeanor serious. “I ain’t as strong as you think I am. I almost did it.”
“I almost killed Vivian and Sal the night I caught them together,” he told Jack in a conspiratorial whisper.
“Are you serious?” he practically shouted.
“Keep your voice down.” Roland snapped, looking over at Mona and Leon who were minding their own business.
“You almost offed Vivian and Sal?” Jack said, lowering his voice again. He looked around, making sure Mona and Leon didn’t overhear.
“Yeah. I came close. I just turned thirty years old, and Vivian was twenty-seven. After we were married and moved in together over on Wilbur Street, my uncle Joe gave me a pistol. It was a Smith and Wesson six-shot revolver. He gave it to me to protect my new wife and our home. It was to keep the family we were about to start safe.” he explained.
Roland took a sip of coffee then continued.
“It wasn’t long till I learned about Vivian and Sal. Just a couple of months really. The signs were there – like how Viv would always work late at the furniture factory. She had the afternoon shift but sometimes wouldn’t come home till one in the morning. It didn’t sit right with me. I didn’t know what exactly was going on until I decided to find out for myself. One night I parked down the block from where she worked and waited to see what time she left.”
Roland took another sip of coffee. He paused, savoring the taste, leaving Jack in suspense.
“Go on,” Jack encouraged.
“Vivian left the factory at ten p.m., long before she told me she’d leave. She got into the red Plymouth her parents bought her and I followed. At first, I thought she saw me trailing her. She didn’t. I stayed a good distance behind her, and she drove to the Lamplighter Motel. Remember that dive?”
Jack nodded. “Yeah. It’s still there on 35th street.”
“Anyhow, she pulled up to the building and parked next to a blue Chrysler that sat in front of Room 114.”
Roland’s rheumy eyes filmed over. They had a faraway look in them as he relived this trauma for what seemed to be the hundredth – no, the thousandth – time. Even though the passage of time dulled the sharp pain of the memory, it still hurt.
“Sal opened the door of the motel room. It was the first time I saw his ruddy face. Vivian kissed him on the mouth, waltzed right in, and closed the door behind her.” Roland took a deep breath and continued. “My heart dropped, Jack. It fell a thousand feet into a pit. All I could feel was jealously and anger… I couldn’t take it. I turned around and went home for the pistol that was meant to protect her.” He smirked wistfully at the irony. “I was gonna use it to kill Vivian and the man she was sleeping with.”
Fountains of emotion came springing up from Roland’s chest, rooted in memory. His eyes were shiny. He sniffed, then took a deep breath, comforting himself.
“When I came back to the Lamplighter, armed with the gun, Sal was just leaving. He got into his car and drove off, probably to go fetch a late-night snack. Who knows? Vivian’s Plymouth was still there so I knew she was inside.”
Roland opened up his sketchpad, turned to a blank page, and started drawing frantically, the harsh sound of the pencil scribbling on the paper seemed loud in the nearly deserted eatery.
“As soon as Sal was gone, I parked in his spot. I knocked on their door. My hand grasped the gun so hard that my knuckles turned white. Even though I loved her the anger and jealousy grew stronger and all I could think about was what I was going to do. I was now driven by pure hatred and rage.” Roland explained, still sketching away.
“‘Back so soon, honey? Did you forget something?’ Viv says from inside, thinking I was Sal. She opened the door wearing a black silk nighty, finding the barrel of the Smith and Wesson pointed at her pretty face, her long blonde hair now disheveled after her romp in the sack. I marched in, slamming the door behind me. Vivian tried to scream but gasped instead. She took a couple steps backward towards the bed and its soiled sheets.”
“‘Yes, honey, back so soon,’ I tell her. ‘How could you do this Viv? How could you?’ I demanded.” Roland’s hand accelerated, his pencil racing across the paper almost of its own volition.
“‘Roland… Roland, please stop. Don’t do this. Don’t let it make you do this.’” When she spoke those words, she didn’t look at me. Her eyes were fixed on something behind me instead.”
“‘Don’t let it make you do this?’” Jack echoed. “Could she have been talking about your anger? Your rage?”
“No. She was talking about some thing else.”
“What do you mean?”
“She told me saw it. She called it a monster.” He was still drawing, impossibly faster now, focused on what he was doing.
“Saw a monster? You mean you, Roland? Because of what you were gonna do?”
“No. She said it was standing behind me. She didn’t scream and stood there transfixed, almost in a trance. She just stared at it, mouth hanging open, and an expression on her face I ain’t ever seen on a human being. I didn’t believe her… I wasn’t that dumb, and I didn’t look behind me… I just kept the gun on her face and was a about to pull the trigger.”
Still drawing, Roland continued his tale. Jack listened raptly, his eyes widening.
“When I stepped forward, I noticed a mirror on the wall to my right… I looked into it… and I saw it, Jack, the thing in the mirror…just like Viv said. It was standing right behind me the entire time only I couldn’t see the damn thing before – but somehow, she could.”
Mona came by, set Jack’s food on the table but he was oblivious of it. She warmed up both of their cups. Roland nodded his thanks and didn’t resume speaking until she was out of earshot. However, not once did his drawing hand waver.
“It stood there behind me with its arm stretched forward, alongside my arm. Its hand clutched my hand, guiding me, holding the revolver with me, pushing me, prompting me to murder her. It was using my rage and jealousy as a means for me to pull the trigger and splatter Viv’s brains all over the room. I was going to do it too, until I saw it.”
Roland finished his drawing, turned the sketchpad over but didn’t put down his pencil.
“I saw its gnarled body and its twisted face in the mirror, Jack. It looked at me… it turned its head, and it looked right into my eyes in the reflection.”
Roland snapped the pencil in two, he held it that tight. He turned his sketchpad over, looked at his work, keeping it away from Jack.
“You’ve got to be kidding me, Roland.”
“No. I’m not. When I saw the thing, I knew what it was trying to do. It was urging me to kill them both and then myself. But when I saw it I couldn’t go through with it, Jack. I ran right out of the Lamplighter and didn’t look back. Not once.”
“I don’t know if she ever told Sal what happened that night. I divorced Vivian and tried to forget her. All of it. But every time I see Sal, I’m reminded of the thing in the mirror.”
“I’ve never heard anything like that before.” said Jack, looking alarmed.
Roland showed Jack his drawing. “This is what I saw.”
It was a sight that haunted Roland’s dreams for many years following that night. Its face, if one could call it that, was an indescribable horror with vacant eyes. It was just a drawing but seemed to be looking right through Jack. He grimaced and turned away.
“Jack,” Roland began. “I need to ask something of you. Something very important.”
“Yeah? What is it?”
“I know you have something planned tonight. Something bad. Don’t do it. Just let it go.”
“Let what go?”
“You know what. Don’t play coy with me, Jack.”
“What the hell are you talking about, Roland?”
“I know what you’re going to do Andy for firing you. Look in the window’s reflection, Jack. The thing in the mirror. It’s standing behind you.”